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On The Tom Tabback Show, no one gets embarrassed but the star himself.
Just ask recent guest Ed Asner. He had barely walked onstage when Tabback asked the seven-time Emmy winner whether he'd won more of the TV acting awards than any other performer. (He hadn't.) And then there was the time that Tabback decided to "surprise" actor Michael Ansara by introducing his wife. (No one was less surprised than Ansara--his wife had flown with him to the taping.)

And who could ever forget Tabback's riposte when a supporting actor from a syndicated sitcom you never heard of mentioned a TV documentary about women and heart disease. "I see!" the host chortled. "Instead of just giving heart attacks, now they're getting them, too!" Even Ed McMahon wouldn't have har-de-har-harred at that one.

Staging the show inside an East Valley Holiday Inn disco was another concession to necessity. (The show has since made a sideways move to a banquet room in beautiful downtown Chandler's San Marcos Hotel.)

"There really weren't any other facilities that quite met our needs," says Tabback, who dreams of someday building a studio for the show. "Sure, the TV stations have studios, but the only time we could have used them was during off-hours. And how are you going to get 200 people to come watch you tape a show at midnight?"

While the Mesa motel disco did have its advantages (primarily its proximity to the large population of senior citizens who typically make up a Tabback audience), the site also had its drawbacks. Thanks to cheesy production values and an admittedly inexperienced host, early shows taped at the motel looked like homemade talent-show videos.

Tabback readily admits that, except for the guests, the initial shows were "rough--very rough." "The lighting was shoddy, the camera work was shoddy, the sound was shoddy," he says. "What I realized was that we needed to be making progress every week. And as long as we were making substantial progress every week, I decided I was going to hang with it."

Tabback wasn't the only one concerned with the show's "look." Perhaps fearful that viewers would assume that the initial substandard quality of the show was Channel 45's fault, station technicians stepped in and played Dutch uncle. ("We are concerned with the technical quality and we have worked with them on it," confirms program director Seth Parker.)

"We're strapped," confesses Tabback. "We have a hard time doing a quality show here because of lack of equipment and personnel who are used to working on a TV production like this. That's why it's all the more gratifying when I hear celebrities say, `This show is as professional as anything I've done in Hollywood.' We're to the point now where the show is very much broadcast quality."

Some people evidently agree. Although he continues to buy time on Channel 45 to air the thirty-minute version seen in Phoenix, Tabback has successfully placed hourlong versions at 27 independent stations around the country under a barter system frequently used in TV syndication deals.

Rather than sell the show outright, Tabback's company provides the show to participating stations free of charge; in return, his company sells and receives advertising revenue from half the commercial spots in the broadcasts.

According to Tabback, programmers in other markets perceive his retro rap sessions as a family show; in Flagstaff, Reno, and Salt Lake City, the show has been given berths in weekend prime time. "Our demographics are all over the map," beams Tabback. "We've got people watching us from their early teens all the way up to people who are easily pushing eighty."

The key, Tabback believes, is his array of crowd-pleasing guests. So he gets irked when TV listings don't mention them. "I go crazy when I look at TV Guide because sometimes they list our guests and sometimes they don't," he complains. "I wish they'd list everybody's guests all the time--90 percent of the time we have better guests than Regis and Kathie Lee and Oprah and some of the others who are on around that time."

TRY TELLING THAT to the crowd of curiosity-seekers shuffling into the Mesa Holiday Inn's Jubilation disco one Monday evening several weeks ago to catch a taping whose big guest was actress Lee Purcell.

"Lee who?" asks a senior citizen, echoing the question on nearly everyone's mind.

Across the lobby and down the hall, a dozen or so bodies cram the "green room," the holding tank for guests that, in this case, is a tiny motel room only slightly less chaotic than the Marx brothers' stateroom in A Night at the Opera. Several young women rush in and out of the room carrying garment bags. Another woman paws through a tackle box filled with cosmetics, while her colleague winds a curling iron around Lee Purcell's red locks.

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Dewey Webb